In this episode Ari talks with author Mason Currey about the daily rituals of some of the most creative people of all time. Currey's latest book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, goes into details about the practices that help get artist's creative juices flowing. From the bizarre to the mundane, Currey tells what worked for brilliant creatives, and how you can harness some of their creative power by creating your own daily rituals.
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ARI: Now I’m speaking with Mason Currey, who is the author of Daily Rituals. So Mason, thank you so much for speaking with me.
MASON: Hey, thanks so much for having me on.
ARI: What got you interested in daily rituals? That’s the first question.
MASON: Well, the book project actually started in a bout of procrastination on my own part. Several years ago, I was working for a magazine in New York, and I went into the office on a Sunday afternoon to try to write a story that was due the next day, and as often happens to me when I put things off until the afternoon, I was having a hard time buckling down and getting the story written. I’m really more of a morning person and tend to get things done better when I get started early.
So this particular day, I started searching the internet for stories about other writers who, like me, tend to work best first thing in the morning. So basically, I was avoiding doing the story. I was looking around for stories that kind of reinforced this habit of my own. I’ve always been fascinated by stories about how writers and other creative people schedule their day, and it occurred to me that somebody should put all these stories in one place. I actually started a blog collecting these anecdotes. I started it that very afternoon, and then after a couple years, I had the opportunity to expand the idea into the book.
ARI: First of all, I love that it came out of your own procrastination, and I love when things come from places that people would not expect, so that’s cool to begin with. The thing that struck me – because I read through the book, and I really, really enjoyed it; the thing that struck me is I’m almost shocked that people shared these rituals. I’m amazed that you could even find the information, like the guy who would fondle his male configurations – who was that?
MASON: Yeah, that was Thomas Wolfe, the author.
ARI: Yeah, like who writes that? Who shares that?
MASON: Yeah, that’s one of my favorites. The funny thing about that – to back up for your listeners who don’t know the story, the story about Thomas is he was working at a hotel room one evening, and he was kind of blocked; he was trying to get into the right spirit to get some writing done, and nothing was working, and he was looking out the window and he was about to give up and just go to bed, and then all of a sudden, he had this burst of inspiration and sat down and started writing, and he realized that the thing that got him back into the writing spirit was that he had been kind of unconsciously like fondling himself. And so he wrote in a letter to his editor, “This is my brilliant productivity trick, is that I sort of fondle myself and then it gets the creative juices flowing.”
ARI: That’s so bizarre.
MASON: And he claimed it was in a non-sexual way. So yeah, that’s a funny one because it’s amazing that he would kind of brag about that in the letter to his editor. Yeah, that’s one of my favorites, too. But in terms of finding the others, it was a lot of just combing through these figures’ diaries and letters and any material where they talked about their personal lives, and trying to piece together these stories.
ARI: The thought that comes to mind then is how accurate do you think all of it is? Some of it’s self-reported. I feel like especially artists and creatives have that tendency to aggrandize things a little bit. The long, long walks, for instance – that was Gustav Mahler, right?
MASON: Yeah, Mahler was one of several people who took really long walks every day.
ARI: Right, but see, I feel like that’s the kind of thing where you could be like – it’s a half an hour walk, but in your mind’s eye, it was a four hour walk. I’m not questioning it per se; it’s just I think that the interpretation of it is as interesting as the ritual itself.
MASON: Yeah, that’s a good point, that’s a good point. There’s definitely some self-mythologizing on the part of a lot of famous artists and creative people. I tried to cut through the legends and present information that I felt was accurate as much as possible. Like the Mahler story, that actually comes from a memoir by his wife about their life together, so I feel like the stories about his long walks are from her perspective and are probably pretty accurate. But there are cases where people talk about their working process, and you kind of have to take it with a grain of salt. Like you say, it’s almost – the way that they talk about it in some ways tells you as much about the creative process, maybe more so than if you actually had an accurate accounting of it.
ARI: You said it better than I did, but that’s my point, actually, is that almost the way they interpret it, the way that they see that whole process, is part of the process and that’s what we can learn from. I think that’s really cool. So what, in your mind, was the strangest that you saw? Give me one or two that you thought were the real strangest ones.
MASON: I think the strangest one was this 19th century German poet and historian and playwright named Friedrich Schiller. He said that he needed a drawer full of rotting apples in his work room, because he needed the decaying smell in order to feel the urge to write.
ARI: That’s pretty bizarre.
MASON: That’s probably the weirdest. Unfortunately, I don’t have any – that’s sort of like this one crazy detail, and it’s one of those things you wish you knew more.
ARI: That actually leads in really well to my next question, which is how do you – maybe you learn this along the way, but how do you think people go about finding their daily ritual? In your own life, maybe you’ve discovered some of that too, but that’s something that they always find that that seems to be an issue sometimes, that they’ll listen to what someone else does or they’ll follow a recommendation, but finding your own daily ritual sometimes is a complete accident.
MASON: Yeah, it definitely is, and I think it really varies from circumstance to circumstance. I hope what the book shows is that all of these people evolved a way of working that suited their temperament and the obstacles in their life. People had day jobs or family commitments or they had illnesses or they found that they could only work in the middle of the night or in the early morning, and they arranged their lives in order to deal with these various obstacles and make sure that their creative work was being put first.
So I think you have to treat your own schedule as an opportunity or a tool, and look at what are the things you have to get done and what are the most important, and when do you work best, and then try to create a daily routine that does that as best as you can. Sometimes that ends up being a sort of quirky thing. Some people find that they work best after midnight, and they have to create a daily routine that seems sort of crazy to a normal person. I think that’s totally legitimate.
ARI: That’s really funny. That’s such an interesting way of putting it. For me, I have to write for what I do and for my blog and for my book and stuff, but I’ve never considered myself a writer, and I don’t think that I’m a particularly good writer. It’s very difficult for me to do it. I have found that the only time that I can write, creatively at least, is after 9:00 at night. It’s so funny; it could be that I just write better after 9:00 at night, or it could be that the routine of taking a bath with my two-year-old son and then putting him to bed with a story and then having a cup of tea, which is just something I do, maybe that’s what actually makes it so that I can write.
MASON: Yeah, that’s an interesting point. I was gin to say, it’s interesting how the ritual can sort of – you can walk yourself into the head space where you can finally focus. I think that that’s very true.
ARI: Were there any common themes that you found? Because you looked at people from many different times, or eras, rather, and most creatives, but in different areas. Were there some common themes that you found or things that worked for a lot of people?
MASON: There were a few. People always ask “What’s the big takeaway? What’s the perfect daily routine?” And there isn’t really one perfect one. [Inaudible 00:08:51] huge variety of ways that people found to get their work done and to be creative on a daily basis. But that said, there were definitely some common themes. Taking walks was a big one, and [inaudible 00:09:05] recommend that people do any one thing [inaudible 00:09:09] a walk every day. There really does seem to be a lot of value to the way that walking or other similar exercise gets your brain moving in a productive manner and it helps you work through creative problems. So that was one.
There’s also an awful lot of coffee drinking in the book, so people who are coffee drinkers can feel secure in that habit, and if you’re not a coffee drinker, you might want to think about picking it up. It really does seem to stimulate new ideas. it’s interesting; I feel like the coffee thing, both on a chemical level, it seems to be useful as a mild stimulant, but I think that the actual ritual of making the coffee is a perfect thing for a lot of creative people. It’s just long enough that you [inaudible 00:10:06] and there’s just enough tinkering with it that it’s a perfect little daily ritual.
ARI: That’s a cool one, because Dave Asprey, the Bulletproof Executive guy, talks about how he always likes the pour-over method of coffee because it makes him stop for a couple minutes to slowly pour the water in and he actually slows down and does it. So that’s very cool too. I like this because it’s very – I hate to use this word, but it’s very meta. You’re looking at a grand scale of how everything kind of comes together.
MASON: Yeah, it is and it isn’t, because it’s like – there’s this grand scale and all these different routines, but I think each one stands on its own. I really do have a hard time coming up with a grand theory or a big set of recommendations, because I really think that each person’s routine is very individual and really tailored to their particular set of habits and their situation and their temperament.
ARI: Oh no, totally. Within the individual routine itself, actually, there’s so much that goes into it. It’s not just a matter of “Do this, then do this, then do this. Okay, now you’re going to be creative.” It’s like “the act of doing this may lead to the ability to…” There’s like a whole cascading effect to it.
MASON: Yeah, that’s true. It’s kind of hard [inaudible 00:11:33] how much the ritual is enabling the creativity and how much it’s just sort of – it’s true, it’s hard to unravel where the ritual starts and how much of it is necessary and how much of it is just going through the motions.
ARI: Right, okay. That actually brings up another point for me. We have these things in our mental processes called heuristics, which is basically our brain’s way of being lazy and short-cutting things. I’m always looking at ways of making things more efficient, and yeah, there’s probably a more efficient way to get into a creative mode than to take a four hour walk or something, or a three hour walk. But it’s almost like if it works, don’t mess with it, but at the same time, it does require almost a little bit of a lack of self-awareness to just go with the flow, accept it as is, and then not really challenge it after that.
MASON: Yeah, there seems to be a lot in this book of people stumbling upon something that works and then not wanting to mess with it too much, because you really get the sense that doing sustained creative work is a fragile thing. Most of the people in this book really struggle with getting good quality writing done or good quality painting or composing done every day. You’re constantly – you get a hold of this thing, and then you’re afraid it’s going to slip away. So I think there is a lot of somewhat superstitious reliance on sticking with whatever managed to work for you in the past and not losing hold of this fragile grasp that you have on the process.
ARI: Sure. I don’t want to push you into giving the big answer, but as far as men and women, did you see any commonalities between men and women?
MASON: Not really. I have to say, I was looking at the “great minds” of the last few hundred years, mostly in the arts, in terms of writers and painters and composers and people along those lines, philosophers, and that’s a largely male group. I definitely wanted to get more women in here, and there’s so many reams of books about some of these great male figures – you could probably write an entire book just about Hemingway’s routines and rituals because they’ve been talked about and he’s talked about them so exhaustively. It was a real challenge to find as much material about women artists and women composers. There’s just not as much biographical material on them. So I don’t really feel like I have a good handle on there being a gender difference, just because I wasn’t able to dig up as much material on women figures as I was with the men.
ARI: Okay, fair enough. Then what about drugs and alcohol? Did you see that a lot?
MASON: Yeah, there was a fair bit of that. One of the surprises for me was, going into the book, I knew about people like Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson, who famously fueled their writing binges with amphetamines and speed. I was really interested in – there was a swath of early 20th century writers who used amphetamines in a very methodical and almost kind of boring way. You may have noticed some of these in the book, but there are figures – like the poet W. H. Auden took a daily dose of amphetamines every morning the way a lot of people take a multivitamin. He called it “one of the tools in the mental kitchen.” It was kind of an extra way to give yourself a little bit of focus. So there were other people like that, who used amphetamines to just help themselves buckle down on a daily basis. So that was surprising.
ARI: That was the Adderall of the day, I guess.
MASON: Yeah, exactly. There was a period there where some of these – there were some over-the-counter amphetamines that weren’t highly controlled. Like Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosopher, was really into this one particular mix of amphetamine and aspirin that was kind of like a fashionable drug among the intellectual crowd in Paris at that time.
ARI: That’s awesome. It’s great that there was a fashionable drug that included amphetamines. I think that’s really funny.
MASON: Well, the funny thing is that the prescribed dose was – I don’t know if I have the facts exactly right – I think the prescribed dose was two tablets a day, and he would chew 20 a day. He would just sort of chew on them as he was writing, and there’s a great quote about how he felt like the ideas for his book were already in his head, complete, and it was just a matter of forcing his brain to crank them out onto the page, and that for every one of these pills he chewed, one of these tablets, it was like one more half page or so of work that he could grind out.
ARI: And just get it out as fast as possible, I guess.
MASON: Yeah, yeah.
ARI: Wow, okay. After doing this – you did over 300 people, right?
MASON: No, about half that. About 160 people.
ARI: Okay. Well, still, that’s a lot. So what’s your daily routine?
MASON: My daily routine – before I started working on the book, as I mentioned, I’m really more of a morning person, and for a long time I would get up early only if I had some kind of deadline or crunch period. It was something I did like in an emergency. But when I started working on the book, I was also working full-time, and the only way to really do the book and also work was to get up early every day. So I got up at 5:30 in the morning every weekday and worked on the book for two hours, and then I would have breakfast with my wife and then go off to work and have a normal 9 to 5 day. Then often in the evenings, I would go to the library to do research.
The thing I found is that getting up early every day really turned out to be the saving grace of the whole project. Even though I don’t love having to get up early like most people, I do find that that is my best working period, and so now that the book is done, I still get up at 5:30 or 6:00 pretty much every weekday, because I feel like what it taught me is that if that’s the best time for me to work, I should really be taking advantage of it every day, and not just during crunch periods or work emergencies.
ARI: Okay, that’s great. And you feel that that’s made you more efficient, obviously.
MASON: Yeah, I do. I feel like I often get more or better work done during that first couple of hours, when I’m still kind of groggy and drinking coffee and it’s dark out, than I do many times for the rest of the day. Those first couple of hours are like the peak time for me, and I really try to put whatever my most important work is – to work on that during that time and not squander it doing email or dealing with miscellaneous stuff.
ARI: How much of that do you think is discipline versus having a ritual? Or maybe it’s the same thing.
MASON: It’s a little bit of both. Because I don’t really think of myself as that disciplined of a person. When I get up early – people always say to me, “Oh, that’s terrible. I hate getting up early. I’m really not a morning person.” And I don’t feel like I’m a morning person either in terms of wanting to talk to people or being particularly alert. I feel like a groggy, half-awake mess, but for whatever reason, I feel like that is a good state for me to be in for focusing on one work task. Actually getting out of bed maybe requires some discipline, but in terms of working, it’s like that’s just the time when it flows more naturally for me.
It’s almost, I think – this is a way for me to minimize my effort in a way, because if I can get in a couple good hours first thing, then I get more done during the day and I don’t have to do as much work during the parts of the day, like later in the afternoon, when I have a really hard time concentrating. I really think there’s something to this idea that there’s morning people and night people. In the research, it seemed like most people had a portion of the day that was their best time, and so I really advocate for people figuring out when their best work period is and then doing whatever it takes to arrange their schedules to take advantage of that.
ARI: Yeah, and I like that, because a lot of the things that I often do with my productivity system and people is really figuring out what that end result is. Sometimes I’m working backwards, and that’s pretty much what you’re saying, which is great, because I feel like people, sometimes they’ll just try one thing or another, or they won’t. They’ll just go with the flow and just sort of grind through it without really trying to tweak it to find that optimal time to do various things. And it’s not just creative work. You can get specific, like personally, I found that I don’t like making phone calls before noon. I don’t know why, but I just notice that I’m not very into it and I’m not very pleasant on the phone before noon, and I don’t get the same results. So you try to arrange your schedule around that the best that you can. You learn these things.
MASON: Yeah, yeah, totally. I think it’s interesting – I feel like there’s some things where you can’t force it. There seems to be – there’s a lot of people in the book who there’s this tension between the work they’re doing is difficult and it requires a lot of concentration, and sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and get through it. But at the same time, there’s a point at which you’re just spinning your wheels, and you have to find that sweet spot where it’s still work, but you’re in some kind of zone where it’s possible. I feel like with a lot of people, sometimes it’s easy to put in a lot of effort on things and not actually get a lot out of it, and you have to figure out when the work you’re doing is yielding results and when you’re just punishing yourself or spinning your wheels.
ARI: Sure. Yeah, that definitely makes sense. What’s the next project for you?
MASON: I don’t know yet. I’ve been making a bunch of notes, and I have a couple notebooks full of various ideas of various quality. Probably mostly bad ideas. But I’m trying to hone in on what the next book project is going to be, but I hope to get one figured out pretty soon.
ARI: No, it’s funny that you put it that way, because a huge part of what I do also is having people just get their ideas out, whether they’re good or bad, because a lot of times the “bad” ones will lead to good ones.
MASON: Yeah, that’s a good point. It’s like I feel hesitant about talking about things until you get them figured out. But there definitely seems to be some value in just following stuff to its conclusion.
ARI: The last question that I always ask people on this podcast – and I’m really interested to hear your answers – is the top three tips for being as productive as you can be, or just being as effective as you can be. What are the top three? And it doesn’t have to be from the book or anything; just in general, in all of the things you’ve learned, what are the top three things that you recommend for being more effective?
MASON: That’s an interesting question. I think one of them is definitely, as I mentioned before, figuring out what time of day is your magic hour or is the time of day when you have the best focus and you’re most able to do whatever work it is that’s most important to you. So I think that’s #1. I think people really need to be self-aware about when they’re doing good work, and if it is a particular time of day or a particular set of circumstances.
I think #2 is having a daily routine that gives you that time every day. I think it can be a real challenge for a lot of people who have a lot of commitments, if they have work commitments and family commitments, but I think being fairly ruthless about carving out some time for whatever your most important work is, at the same time every day, if possible. That’s two things.
The third thing… this is hard.
ARI: Yeah, the third one is always the killer.
MASON: The thing that really struck me from the book is how much people persevered. Looking back on these people – we all know that Charles Darwin ended up coming up with the theory of evolution, and it was this huge game-changer and changed the way everyone thinks about the world and human’s place in it. But on a daily basis, before the Origin of the Species came out, he was working really hard and had no clue if his work was going to amount to something.
That’s true of a lot of people in the book. There are these huge spans of time when they’re just kind of working and working and working, and they have no recognition, and some of them never had any recognition, and certainly many of them didn’t have financial success. So I think it’s really just perseverance and continuing to do the work that you think is valuable, even if it doesn’t seem to be paying off on the short term.
ARI: I love that, actually. I mean, I love all those, but I’ve interviewed a lot of entrepreneurs on this show and everything, and no one’s ever mentioned perseverance as the one, so I really like that. Thank you for sharing that.
MASON: Yeah, of course.
ARI: Yeah, those are really good ones. So the book is called Daily Rituals; it’s available everywhere, I assume. I got mine on Amazon, but I’m assuming it’s available everywhere, right?
MASON: Yeah, you should be able to get it anywhere.
ARI: Which I recommend everybody do. And then what’s the best place people can find out more about you? Twitter or URL, whatever you want.
MASON: I have a personal website. It’s masoncurrey.com, and that links to my Twitter and Facebook and all the other stuff.
ARI: Great. Mason, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me and sharing a little bit more about daily rituals with us.
MASON: Hey, yeah, thank you so much. It was great to talk to.